Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Stanford executes game plan to claim 13th Pac-12 title
LAS VEGAS – It’s only been a month. A long month of practices, film, games and probably more than few regrets and mental re-enactments.
On February 10, in front of a national television audience, the Stanford Cardinal absorbed the worst home loss in program history, an 88-48 humiliation at the hands of the Oregon Ducks. A proud program, with a vaunted home-court history found itself quickly disregarded as a true player in the national picture. When the best team in the league beats you by more than five touchdowns in your house, people tend to doubt.
Stanford couldn’t afford to doubt. They took their regrets and went to work. They turned those mental re-enactments into an actual scouting report that would stifle the best offense in the country for long stretches of time at the beginning and the end of the game.
They talked not about revenge, or even their feelings, but about hard work, promising only to “battle” and “play their game”.
And then they went out and did just that in the Pac-12 Tournament title game on Sunday evening in the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The Cardinal hustled their way to a 64-57 win over top-seeded Oregon to capture their 13th conference tournament championship in 18 seasons.
“It was something we had in our minds ever since we lost that game,” said Stanford senior forward Alanna Smith, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “When you take a loss like that, you have no choice but to learn from it. So, we were happy that we got to play Oregon today, because we wanted another chance at them.
“I just think from the result and how we are all feeling right now, it just shows how badly we wanted it. Tara says every time that every disappointment is a blessing. That was a huge disappointment to us, but this is a huge blessing right now too.”
Oregon, which has now absorbed three losses since that win at Stanford, was disappointed not only in the result that denied them a second straight tournament title and perhaps a No. 1 seed in the NCAA brackets, but by the effort they put forth.
“We didn’t come out and we didn’t have any fire and they came out and you could tell they really wanted to beat us and we were on our heels for most of the game,” said Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Ducks junior forward Ruthy Hebard, the focus of the Cardinal’s gameplan inside, said Stanford’s intensity wasn’t a surprise.
“But for some reason, we didn’t match that intensity, which we should have,” Hebard said.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves credited Stanford for taking away many of the things the Ducks like to do offensively, including the pick-and-roll game between Ionescu and Hebard.
“We didn’t get the roll action tonight,” Graves said. “They did a nice job on that, so we ended up taking tough, contested pull-ups and we didn’t get the (3-point shooting) game going either. When the best-shooting team in the country shoots 33 percent for the game, you just aren’t going to win.”
Using a scout masterfully assembled by associate head coach Kate Paye, Stanford held Oregon to a season-low 57 points and 33.9 percent shooting from the floor. The Ducks, who average 87.3 points a game, had just 24 points at the half and Stanford built a 14-point lead in the 3rd quarter before a pair of scary moments blunted their momentum, and the Ducks clawed back into the game to take a lead.
When Smith left the floor a minute into the third quarter with what looked like a potentially serious ankle injury, and she was followed closely by center Maya Dodson who limped off the court, the Ducks, looking at a 38-24 deficit, took advantage. They outscored Stanford 18-3 to take a 42-41 lead at the end of the third quarter.
But Smith and Dodson both returned to the floor, and Stanford wouldn’t buckle. The game was tied at 51-51 with 5:04 to go, but the Cardinal went on a 13-3 run to close the game, including a 3-pointer by Kiana Williams that gave Stanford a 58-52 lead and a little breathing room.
“I just knew we needed a basket because they were guarding (DiJonai Carrington) and Alanna really hard,” Williams said. “My teammates have confidence in me. My coaching staff has confidence in me. I just knocked it down.”
Ionescu led the Oregon charge with 27 points (her best scoring game of the tournament), but was the only player to score from the floor in the final 8:11 of the game.
Smith finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks for Stanford. DiJonai Carrington led the Cardinal with 22 points and nine rebounds. Kiana Williams added 13 points and six assists.
And then there were the unsung performances of Dodson, who finished with six points and four huge blocks. And Anna Wilson came off the bench to defend Ionescu, hitting a big 3-pointer in the third quarter and playing a season high 27 minutes.
“We won this game with our defense,” VanDerveer said. “We came in as the top-ranked defensive team in the Pac-12 and people really locked in defensively. We did what we needed to do and I’m just really proud and really happy for these young women.”
Both teams will have some time to rest, and in Oregon’s case, regroup.
“This doesn’t derail our goals of doing well in the NCAA Tournament, going a long way,” Graves said. “But we feel bad now. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this and move forward.”
Oregon and Stanford are both projected to enter the NCAA Tournament bracket with No. 2 seeds, and both look like teams capable of reaching the NCAA Women's Final Four in Tampa, Fla.
“I think the competition we’ve played game in and game out prepared us,” VanDerveer said.
After a Pac-12 Tournament full of excitement, upsets and elite-level basketball, who is going to argue with a Hall of Fame coach who just cut down another net.
“I don’t look at it like ‘Oh, it’s just another trophy or another net’.” VanDerveer said. “It’s another great memory.”